Saturday, July 27, 2013

“Corporate Reform” or Failed, Desperate Corporate Management?

By the brilliant Bruce Baker.

“Corporate Reform” or Failed, Desperate Corporate Management?

Posted on July 26, 2013
I suspect there are a lot of readers of my blog and twitter followers who frequently use the phrase “corporate reform” to characterize the current heavily privately financed movement to push specific “reforms” to public education systems.  My readers may not have noticed, but I tend not to use this phrase. I have a few reasons for my avoidance of this term.  First, it’s my impression that the term necessarily implies corporate to mean “evil.” That a corporate mindset – meaning private sector for profit business mindset can do no good. I’m cynical, but not that cynical.  I actually do think there are good, for profit corporations out there. Perhaps they are dwindling in their numbers and power base, but I still think they exist.
But here are my main reasons why I don’t roll with the whole “corporate reform” lingo. That the education reforms being pushed – that are cast as “corporate reforms” – a) really aren’t that common in private sector for profit business and b) they suck – even in (perhaps especially in) private for profit business. The supposed “corporate reforms” being advocated for the takeover of public education are reasonably well understood among analysts of private for profit business to be failed models. Models of desperation forcibly implemented by CEOs of businesses in decline – CEOs who often are on the verge of their own ouster due to their persistent failures of leadership. Thus, their solution – their secret sauce – blame the employees – force groups of employees to beat the hell out of each other – distracting from the failures of leadership. Sound familiar? Well, here are two vivid cases that should sound familiar.
The Portfolio Model at Sears
One popular component of what is referred to as the corporate reform movement in public education is the replacement of traditional public districts with a portfolio of public and private providers of schooling options who will compete to attract students and be accountable for posting good test scores. Thus, all boats will rise as a function of competitive pressures – and no child will be left without great schooling alternatives. A wonderful replacement for our current failing urban schools, right? Well, as I’ve explained previously, the system we’ve put in place to implement and evaluate schools under such models doesn’t actually work this way. Large segments of students go un-served entirely, as in New Orleans.  Schools aggressively cream skim each other’s desired students in order to post good numbers, and shed masses of students that don’t aid them in the rat-race.  The model has evolved over time from portfolio to parasitic, or perhaps even cannibalistic.
But hey, this stuff works great in the private sector, so why shouldn’t it work well for schools?
Not so fast. One of the most apt comparisons might be the recent follies of Sears.  The title of this article says it all:
At Sears, Eddie Lampert’s Warring Divisions Model Adds to the Troubles
Ya’ see, Eddie Lampert figured, like “ed reformers” that if we could simply capitalize on the inherent greed and selfishness of individuals (“rational” behavior as described in econ literature) in the corporate workforce, we can get them to work harder and harder to out-compete each other to achieve greater financial reward, and the obvious result will be greater profitability for the company as a whole? Right. The way to do this would be to break Sears into several parts, and make those parts compete with each other to post good measurable outcomes. As described in the article:
Although Lampert is notoriously media-averse, he agreed to answer questions about Sears’s organizational model via e-mail. “Decentralized systems and structures work better than centralized ones because they produce better information over time,” Lampert writes. “The downside is that, to some, it appears messier than centralized systems.” Lampert adds that the structure enables him to evaluate the individual parts of Sears, so he can collect “significantly better information and drive decision-making and accountability at a more appropriate level.”
Lampert created the model because he wanted deeper data, which he could use to analyze the company’s assets. It’s why he hired Paul DePodesta, the Harvard-educated statistician immortalized by Michael Lewis in his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, to join Sears’s board. He wanted to use nontraditional metrics to gain an edge, like DePodesta did for the Oakland Athletics in Moneyball and is trying to repeat in his current job with the New York Mets. Only so far, Lampert’s experiment resembles a different book: The Hunger Games.
Personally, I enjoy that this is another example of using Moneyball as an excuse to implement a painfully ignorant adaptation of the concept.  How many times have we heard test-based teacher evaluation advocates similarly mindlessly invoke the moneyball comparison?  Far more predictably, as described above, the result was Hunger Games (which is far more applicable than moneyball to current ed reform strategies in so many ways).
As the article further explains, quite predictably:
As some employees had feared, individual business units started to focus solely on their own profitability and stopped caring about the welfare of the company as a whole. According to several former executives, the apparel division cut back on labor to save money, knowing that floor salesmen in other departments would inevitably pick up the slack. Turf wars sprang up over store displays. No one was willing to make sacrifices in pricing to boost store traffic.
Former Sears executives say their biggest objection to Lampert’s model is that it discourages cooperation. “Organizations need a holistic strategy,” says Erik Rosenstrauch, former head of Sears’s DieHard unit, who is now CEO of Fuel Partnerships, a retail marketing agency. As the business unit leaders pursued individual profits, rivalries broke out. Former executives say they began to bring laptops with screen protectors to meetings so their colleagues couldn’t see what they were doing.
Appliance maker Kenmore is a widely recognized brand sold exclusively at Sears. Under SOAR, the appliances unit had to pay fees to the Kenmore unit. Because the appliances unit could make more money selling devices manufactured by outside brands, such as LG Electronics, it began giving Kenmore’s rivals more prominent placement in stores. A similar problem arose when Craftsman, Sears’s beloved tool brand, considered selling a tool with a battery made by DieHard, also owned by Sears. Craftsman didn’t want to pay extra royalties to DieHard, so the idea was quashed.
And here are some more detailed examples:
The bloodiest battles took place in the marketing meetings, where different units sent their CMOs to fight for space in the weekly circular. These sessions would often degenerate into screaming matches. Marketing chiefs would argue to the point of exhaustion. The result, former executives say, was a “Frankenstein” circular with incoherent product combinations (think screwdrivers being advertised next to lingerie).
Eventually Lampert’s advisory committee instituted a bidding system, forcing the units to pay for space in the circular. This eliminated some of the infighting but created a new problem: The wealthier business units, such as appliances, could purchase more space. Two former business unit heads recall how, for the 2011 Mother’s Day circular, the sporting-goods unit purchased space on the cover for a product called a Doodle Bug minibike, popular with young boys.
The details in this article are wonderfully applicable to portfolio management of urban schooling.  Please read the rest of it, and ponder it in relation to some of my other posts, like this, or this.
So, with respect to portfolio, I mean parasitic… or perhaps cannibalistic management strategies, I’ll go all reformy for a moment and adopt the phrase “sector agnosticism.” This strategy, often cast as a major element of “corporate reform,” is a failed strategy of the corporate sector and equally toxic in public education.  Indeed, the foolishness behind this approach knows no sector boundaries.
Note: interestingly, the article points out that one possible benefit of Lampert’s strategy is that if Sears were to fail so miserably that they eventually had to start selling off their parts, the decentralization of the company and establishment of independent boards for each unit facilitates that process.
IBM’s “Bad Employee” Problem and the Solution that Wasn’t
We all now know that the reason for our failing public education system is “bad teachers.” Teachers with fat pensions, big salaries and who are totally unaccountable for anything, really – especially for helping their students actually get those good test scores that pave the pathway to their future. And that the path to fixing our public education woes is to fire our way to Finland, and to use, really any variant, good bad or indifferent, of student test score growth to sort out the good teachers from bad and to ease the process of getting rid of the bad and incentivizing the good. Obviously, this is how any good private sector business works and so too, it should in schools. After all, we all know that teaching is the only profession where individuals aren’t paid based on their performance, or more specifically, based on a very noisy (and statistically biased) regression estimate of math and reading questions answered by 8 to 13 year old children who happen to spend a few hours of weekdays for 10 months with them. Right?
Let’s go back 20+ years now, to what b-school types actually seem to refer to as a “John Akers moment.” And just what is a “John Akers moment” you ask? Well, John Akers was CEO of a declining IBM in the early 1990s.  The simple response by Akers was to blame the employees, by constructing a new, toxic, employee evaluation scheme. Here’s how that eval  scheme was described at the time:
To identify the best and worst employees, every manager at IBM, beginning this year, will use a seven-page annual evaluation to rate employees on a scale of 1 to 4, with 10 percent receiving the top and bottom grades, and the rest getting 2s and 3s.
The managers will also rank employees by their relative contributions to the business. People who get high rankings are eligible for bonuses, while workers with the lowest grades will be given three months to improve performance or lose their jobs.
IBM says it is not abandoning its no-layoff policy. Rather, in trying to raise performance standards, it is retaining only the best people. “In the competitive world we`re in, we can`t drag along folks who aren`t“ making the grade, said Walton E. Burdick, senior vice president of personnel.
What do IBM employees think? “There are feelings that (IBM chief executive John) Akers has been screwing up, and now he`s turning around and trying to blame others,“ said a 10-year IBM employee who asked not to be named.
The employee`s story shows what a slippery slope IBM may be on. She said she received the second-highest rating — a 2, on what had been a 1-to-5 scale — for most of her career. A few years ago, she got a new boss and her grade slipped to a 3. She thinks the downgrading has more to do with her request for a job transfer than any change in her performance. Now, she says, she is in danger of a 4.
Hmmm… does that sound familiar. Needless to say, Akers plan did not save IBM. Nor did it save Akers, who was ousted soon after.
But some other brilliant leaders in the tech industry, most notably Microsoft, did latch on to the IBM strategy… as a step toward their own long run stagnation. Heck, why would Microsoft ever consider veering from its path of simply copying and implementing even less efficiently, what others have already done? It’s gotten them this far.
This article from July 11, 2013 characterizes current conditions at Microsoft as analogous to IBM in 1992.
Most notably, this article explains that one of Microsoft’s greatest barriers to succeeding in their most recent (desperate) attempts to restructure, is the company’s toxic employee evaluation scheme, as described previously in Vanity Fair:
Major restructuring at any company is almost always traumatic, but Microsoft’s ultra-competitive corporate culture will amplify the impact.
Last year a Vanity Fair magazine story described Microsoft’s debilitating employee ranking system, in which team leaders are forced to hand out reviews based on a quota system. So at least one member of each group will get a bad review, no matter how well they perform.
That system has fostered a lack of cooperation and vicious office politics, a malady that is said to run through the entire company at all levels.
Put simply, this idea that one can raise the overall quality of the company – even improve its productivity and profitability – by rating, degrading, and dismissing “bad techies” – is simply unfounded.
Like the portfolio mismanagement above, the toxicity of this idea knows no sector boundaries. It’s as bad in big, private sector business as it is for schools.
So you see, “Corporate Reform” as currently being pitched for schools is, in fact, FAILED corporate management strategy – often hastily adopted in a moment of leadership desperation – and rarely if ever achieving the desired turn around

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wayne Barrett on Strange Ties in Bill Thompson's Brooklyn Backyard

Strange Ties in Bill Thompson's Brooklyn Backyard

Thursday, July 25, 2013


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In late June, Al Sharpton and four citywide candidates—Bill DeBlasio, John Liu, Scott Stringer and Letitia James—led a demonstration in Bill Thompson’s home territory, the Bed Stuy section of Brooklyn, where he lived all his life until 2004. They were protesting the mismanagement of Interfaith Medical Center, the last remaining hospital serving the neighborhood. Interfaith had filed for bankruptcy months earlier and was still run by managers from the company, Kurron Shares of America, that had led the death march.
Had Thompson come, he would have been protesting against his own one-time business associates.  In 2010 and 2011, as the hospital plunged toward bankruptcy, Thompson was serving as a paid member of the advisory board of a Kurron sister company, working intimately with the owner – a man named Corbett Price who’d been his friend since the 1990s and whose family, employees and firm have donated nearly $20,000 to Thompson campaigns, starting with his first race in 2001.
During that time, Kurron and Price have cut a trail of financial and medical mismanagement, run-ins with regulators and public controversies – not least repeated clashes with healthcare unions – up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
So Thompson’s paid ties to Kurron – during a period when he was planning a second run for the mayor’s office after his near-victory over Michael Bloomberg in 2009 – raise important questions about his attentiveness to detail, his judgment and his choice of associates.
Asked by WNYC on Thursday about his involvement with Price, Thompson said he had “nothing to do with Kurron, nothing to do with their business, nothing to do with their company, period.” He said that he served about six months on an advisory board for Price as he attempted to start up a private equity fund. As for the fate of Interfaith Medical Center, Thompson said he has been part of the fight to keep the hospital open. “I firmly believe that Interfaith needs to stay open, period,” he said. “It is important to that neighborhood.”
Corbett PricePrice, right, would not directly answer questions about his arrangement with Thompson, but his explanation paralleled Thompson’s. “His work for Kurron Capital was to guide us on shifting to become a private equity firm. He wasn’t involved in the operations of the company on health care, consulting or restructuring,” Price said.  A Kurron intimate explained that Price’s general counsel, Pam Bradshaw, worked directly with Thompson, who functioned “more as a consultant,” advising Kurron on the “pursuit of private equity opportunities.” All the Kurron companies had a single shareholder, Price, and shared an office on Third Avenue.
As comptroller, Thompson was Wall Street’s conduit to the city’s $130 billion in pension funds, which the comptroller serves as investment advisor, custodian and trustee.  And his principal employer after he left office has been a public finance firm, Siebert Brandford & Shank, which paid him $680,000 last year. But he joined Kurron when it was a sinking ship.
Just how much Thompson has been paid by Kurron isn’t clear. The disclosure form he filed with the state as chair of the Battery Park City Authority says he was a paid member of the advisory board of Kurron Shares, a sister company to Kurron Capital, Interfaith’s management company, in 2010 and 2011. The state form doesn’t list his earnings, stating only that Kurron was a source of income over $1,000. Another disclosure form, which mayoral candidates filed with the city last week, contained no reference to Kurron, indicating Thompson’s advisory service ended in 2011.                                                                      
The extent of the relationship would be more apparent if Thompson joined his fellow Democratic candidates for mayor by fulfilling a pledge to make public his tax returns. Early this year, he released his 2012 tax returns, but he has refused to release his 2010 and 2011 filings, which would list his Kurron earnings. He is the only Democratic candidate for mayor who’s only released a single year’s return, even while Scott Stringer is making repeated demands that fellow comptroller candidate Eliot Spitzer make five years’ returns public.
In 2012, Thompson appeared on NY1 and host Errol Louis, pointing out that all his opponents had already released their returns for years, asked why he was the only one who hadn’t. A smiling Thompson replied that he would “probably release all four years of them next year, in a campaign year,” rather than “deal with things one at a time.” Over a week of daily calls to Thompson's headquarters, press officer John Collins repeatedly promised them, at one point even describing how they could be viewed at the campaign office. In the end, the campaign never supplied them.
Ties to Kurron are hardly something the average office-seeker would brag about.
WNYC asked an intern new to New York to do a Google search of Kurron to see how quickly she hit negatives. It took a minute. In three minutes, she read an abstract that “criticized Kurron for reducing medical care” at Interfaith and “later earning a surplus of $8.6 million.”
Within 12 minutes, she reached the first Google result about Price’s anti-labor record – a story that led to a deluge going back to 1985, when he started in the healthcare management business with the Hospital Corporation of America, a national fixture in the field. His layoffs in Maryland of 650 workers at the Prince George’s Hospital Center, the county hospital, sparked the union animosity that rails him to this day. In 1989, he left HCA and won a personal contract to run the huge, publicly-owned and privately-managed Maryland facility, but was fired within months, collecting three years of full CEO pay. That’s when he created Kurron, incorporating it in Maryland in 1990.
He tried twice to return to Prince George’s—seeking to buy it in 2003 , and failing that seeking a big consulting contract then and again in 2007 and igniting controversy each time. When county officials withheld millions in subsidies in 2003 that were due the hospital unless they hired Price, the hospital management went to the state attorney general, who conducted a six-month probe of the politicians’ demands before concluding there was no crime. In 2007, when county officials repeated the same public demand for a Price contract in exchange for releasing committed millions of county aid, The Washington Post wondered why Price met such vocal opposition and answered its own question: “Why? Because he has several decades of history tangling with the hospital workers.” A top Maryland union leader, Quincey Gamble, branded him a “slash and burn” villain; the county executive said to favor Price is now in jail, convicted on unrelated corruption charges.
Price’s company and his son donated $9,900 to Thompson’s mayoral campaign in 2007, at the same moment that the Washington-Baltimore press corps covering his Prince George’s County machinations was reporting that Price had “left 1,200 pink slips in his wake,” “enraged union members,” and “hurt” patient care.
Interfaith Medical CenterThe union hostility continues to this day. Just a few months ago, New York’s hospital workers union, Local 1199, joined the New York State Nursing Association in briefs filed in the Interfaith bankruptcy case objecting to Kurron’s latest contract there and charging that Price was a shadow manager consuming grand fees without even visiting hospitals where he was listed as CEO. At the time, Thompson was aggressively seeking 1199’s mayoral endorsement, which he ultimately did not get. But he has received the backing of many city unions, including the United Federation of Teachers.
But the shadow over Kurron hardly ends there. The New York State Department of Health cancelled Kurron’s contract with Interfaith, pictured left, in April, after sending four blistering letters to the company, including charges that bonuses paid to Kurron executives were “contrary to law” and contending that “the reasonableness” of Kurron’s overall fees could not be determined. At the time of Interfaith’s bankruptcy filing, its liabilities exceeded its assets by $200 million after nearly 20 years of Kurron management. The demise wasn’t just financial; a court-appointed patient care ombudsman found the hospital’s emergency department “more chaotic and disorganized” than others he’d observed, noting that “there did not appear to be a coherent process of triage and patient management.”
This week, the health department rejected a reorganization plan proposed by Interfaith’s current managers – a team of former Kurron executives stripped first of Price and then of a long-time Kurron executive, Luis Hernandez, who quit the day of the June protest, a departure that one protest organizer, Robert Cornegy, credited to “pressure from the community.” The state now has asked Interfaith to submit a plan for its closure – part of a dramatic consolidation of healthcare services in Brooklyn that has nearby Long Island Community Hospital almost emptied.
While the collapse of Interfaith culminated after Thompson left Kurron’s advisory board, but the road to bankruptcy – marked by gaping operational deficits – was being paved through his tenure. Also on his watch, in November 2010, Episcopal Health Services terminated the company’s two-decade-old contact to manage St. John’s Hospital in Far Rockaway, disturbed by Price’s efforts to close the obstetrics unit in a low-income neighborhood in a cost-cutting maneuver and also supported by state officials. Soon after, in February 2011, Kurron’s biggest contracts – $14.6 million in politically-wired deals in tiny Bermuda – were abruptly terminated by the government 18 months before they expired amid a flurry of public condemnations.
Price’s champion there, Premier Ewart Brown, awash in corruption allegations, had just stepped down, and the new leader of Brown’s PLP party decided to kill one of the most expansive deals arranged by her own party, an extraordinary event in Bermuda’s hyper-partisan politics.
Of course, none of this was Thompson’s business at Kurron. But the problems made his experience particularly relevant to Price, who explained that he was “shifting direction” to private equity because his other businesses were drying up. Kurron’s battles over Interfaith peaked as Thompson apparently was exiting the firm.
Indeed, the medical center’s  bankruptcy papers read like an expose of Price and Kurron, as well as an autopsy of a gutted hospital. IMC filed on December 2, 2012 – three days after awarding a new $3.25 million contract to Kurron, some $250,000 of which was paid the day before the contract was signed. The contract, which had to be approved by the bankruptcy judge, called for Kurron to continue managing the hospital and become its “restructuring adviser” during the bankruptcy process, with Price as Chief Restructuring Officer and CEO. The rationale was that Kurron knew interfaith so well it was the only consultant that could salvage it, and the judge eventually approved the deal.
The U.S. Trustee that oversees bankruptcies, - joining 1199, the nurses union and the hospital’s creditors – filed objections to the Kurron deal.  The independent trustee found that Kurron “could be an impediment to reorganization,” questioning its ability “to fulfill its fiduciary duty.” Price’s 35-years in the health care business, featuring restructuring experience, was one of the reasons Kurron won the court battle. He promised the judge in court and in writing that he would be a 40-hour-a-week CEO and restructuring chief.
But the briefs from the unions told another tale. The hospital workers union accused Price of a “shockingly cavalier attitude,” arguing that he had not been “present physically” though the first months of the bankruptcy period.  The nurses cited the observations of their own members, who said Price hadn’t been there “a single day” and had no office or secretary at Interfaith, refusing to respond to requests for even a conversation. The hospital’s patient ombudsman said Price wouldn’t meet with him, and only talked to him once for five minutes.
Price responded in court to these allegations by listing a handful of phone inquiries he made about Interfaith, mostly to bankruptcy lawyers and consultants. Kurron also accused the objecting creditors of “prioritizing union interest.” In March, the judge singled out Price personally and dropped him from the contract, approving a new restructuring chief with no ties to Kurron to guide the bankruptcy.
Price’s remote management had been an issue for decades – at least since 1999, when Newsday reported that his claim he “spent very little time away from Interfaith” was “flatly contradicted by multiple sources.” Anthony Kovner, an NYU heath care professor, told Newsday then he’d never heard of a hospital story “stranger than this” – a hospital run by a missing person. Another key objection to Price was that he sat on the Interfaith board that awarded and administered Kurron’s contract for 10 years. The Newsday story was prompted by Price’s war with Interfaith workers; in it, Brian Lane, an 1199 leader, called Price “a hatchet man.”
Lane said: “That’s the style of Corbett Price. Everywhere he goes, he cuts to the bone.”
Polished, bejeweled and engaging, Price - a registered Republican who serves as a trustee of his alma mater, Ohio State University –  works mostly out a Harlem townhouse on West 148th Street he’s owned for years. He bought a $4.9 million condo in 2008 at 15 Central Park West, where Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Denzel Washington and Sting also had apartments and chauffeurs have a waiting room. Kurron sometimes used it for business purposes, but Price sold it in 2011, around the same time that Kurron closed its headquarters office at 885 Third Avenue, where Thompson and Price usually met at awkward two-member “board meetings.” The 800 number on Kurron’s neglected website is dead.
Perhaps Price’s most ambitious undertaking – and most ignominious fall during Thompson’s formal association with Kurron – was his detour to Bermuda.
Price won two of the small country’s biggest consulting contracts in 2007, shortly before “a friend” of his, as the island’s Royal Gazette newspaper described the new premier Ewart Brown, took office in 2006. Charges of cronyism had risen when Kurron beat out the much larger and more prestigious Johns Hopkins University for a plum assignment at the center of the nation’s healthcare system.    
Officials in Bermuda attributed Price’s bonanza to the premier’s ex-New Yorker wife, Wanda Henton-Brown, a onetime New York investment banker whom Price had known for years; in the ’90s, they summered in nearby houses on Martha’s Vineyard. That’s also when Price steered a huge bond offering from Interfaith to the fledgling investment firm Henton-Brown had just founded herself. More recently, Price has given to Henton-Brown’s Bermuda foundation. Messages left for Henton-Brown in Bermuda were not returned.
Price was supposed to do three things in Bermuda: develop a national health plan, come up with a conceptual/financial model for a new hospital and propose a new insurance program for seniors called Futurecare. His health plan was never adopted, Futurecare has been turned upside down since he left and is running a $13 million annual deficit, and the new and financially troubled King Edward VII Memorial Hospital just shut down its continuing care unit for seniors this month as “not fit.”
An opposition party leader, Louise Jackson, called Price’s fees “absolutely obscene” on the floor of Parliament. Price’s 34-year old son Devin, a kick-boxing promoter, oversaw the Bermuda work for Kurron, sometimes conducting meetings about it at 15 Central Park West. Once Brown resigned in 2011, awash in scandal, his successor, though she was also a leader of Brown’s PLP party, cancelled Kurron’s contract – 18 months before it expired.  
The worst of Kurron’s problems – in Bermuda, and at Interfaith and St. John’s – came home to roost during Thompson’s association with Kurron and Price.  The issue for Thompson is not whether he aided or advised Price on labor relations, Bermuda or the management of the Brooklyn hospitals. The question is why he identified himself with a company with so much baggage.
Someone looking for patterns would point to past blots on Thompson’s record. Before he became comptroller, he worked in a small underwriting firm selling municipal bonds without the required license for years, and broke half a dozen securities rules. His firm signed him up for a six-hour licensing exam six times, forfeiting a $200 fee when he failed to show up each time. Finally passing the test in December 1995, he failed to meet continuing education requirements, forcing securities authorities to list him as “deficient and inactive” and temporarily suspend his license for two more years. Yet his 2001 campaign for comptroller emphasized his private sector expertise including the claim he’d sold billions in bonds, without mentioning he did it illegally. It was also revealed in that campaign that he’d filed his taxes late four of five years and had to repay by installment.
In 2008, while serving as comptroller, Thompson got a highly favorable mortgage and credit line from the union-owned Amalgamated Bank, which did billions of dollars of business with his office – an episode highlighted in commercials run by Mayor Bloomberg’s 2009 reelection campaign, in which he edged out Thompson.  The $1.4 million loan to acquire Thompson’s Harlem home was artificially split in half by the bank to avoid federal ceilings and secure a lower interest rate. Amalgamated’s management of city retirement funds administered by Thompson’s office grew from $174 million when became comptroller to $3.6 billion, taking its greatest leap at the same time Thompson got the favorable mortgage and earning the bank $51 million in fees.
Thompson and state officials also deposited $50 million in city cash in Amalgamated, making it the biggest recipient of a special public deposit program; the number two bank in that program, North Fork, also gave Thompson a personal line of credit and loans.  He also used the comptroller’s office to push high state and city officials to fund his wife-to-be’s new African-American art museum on Fifth Avenue,  which was slated to open in 2009 but remains uncompleted.
All this is history. The substantive issue, in the midst of a tight mayoral primary, is why Thompson decided to enter and maintain a compensated business relationship with a man with Price’s history.  Besides repeating over and over yesterday that he had “nothing to do with Kurron,” that’s not a question Thompson has answered.
Ben Shanahan and Tamara Smillie, a research assistant at the Nation Institute, contributed reporting.  

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Chicago Rising

Chicago Rising!

Karen Lewis, center, president of the CTU is joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, left, and United States Representative Bobby Rush, right, during a demonstration and march over the a plan to close fifty-four Chicago Public Schools through Chicago's downtown Wednesday, March 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

On a sunny saturday this past May, far down on the city’s black South Side where corner stores house their cashiers behind bulletproof plexiglass, about 150 activists assembled at Jesse Owens Community Academy. In just a few days, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed Board of Education would vote on the largest simultaneous school closing in recent history. Owens, along with fifty-three other public schools, was on the chopping block. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll found that more than 60 percent of Chicago citizens opposed the closings, and a healthy cross section of them had turned out for the first of three straight days of marches in protest.

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Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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Women in red Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) T-shirts registered participants; a vanload of purple-shirted SEIU marchers lingered in excited anticipation; an activist from the city’s Anti-Eviction Campaign, which breaks into and takes over foreclosed houses, donned a parade marshal’s orange vest; two street medics from the Occupy-associated Chicago Action Medical checked on some elderly marchers who arrived in a church bus. The music teacher at Owens, a former minister, asked rhetorically, “Will I have a job on Monday?” She answers her own question: “That’s OK.” A white, middle-class mother with two kids in the system, who traveled almost 100 blocks to be here, told me that she is a Republican but that “people on the right don’t like being pushed around by overbearing government.”
There were signs representing Jobs With Justice and the community-labor umbrella group Grassroots Collaborative. Another sign snarked: if rahm and his unelected school board ever set foot in a CPS school perhaps their math wouldn’t be so bad. The president of Michigan’s American Federation of Teachers spoke. Then a parent mocked public schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s recent invocation of Martin Luther King at a City Club of Chicago speech: “How can you call this a civil rights movement when you resegregate our schools, decimate our teacher corps and destabilize our neighborhoods?”
The march stepped off, passing boarded-up houses and auction signs; a CTU staffer called cadence (“I don’t know but it’s been said/ Billionaires on the Board of Ed”). Supporters shouted out in solidarity from front porches. When we passed the first of five closing schools along our seven-mile route, a clutch of 10-year-olds bearing handmade signs joined in and got turns at the bullhorn. I noticed something striking: again and again, when the CTU yell-leader barked out the first half of a new chant (“We need teachers, we need books”), everybody already knew the second line: “We need the money that Rahhhhhhm took!”
They know the words because they’ve been here before. The CTU beat Rahm in a historic strike this past September and hasn’t stopped fighting austerity and privatization since. They probably know the words across town too, where a simultaneous march along an even longer route on the even poorer black West Side was going on.
But it isn’t just CTU members who know the words. The progressive tribes have been gathering in Chicago with force, efficiency, creativity, trust and solidarity, building a bona fide, citywide protest culture. And it’s working. Days before these marches, Mayor Emanuel, who has been talked up in some circles as possibly the first Jewish president, told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I am not running for higher office—ever.” This purring protest infrastructure is one of the major reasons why.
To many national observers, this rebirth of the city’s militant protest culture seemingly came out of nowhere. But it didn’t. It’s the product of years of organizing from sources both expected and surprising. And while the radicalized CTU under the leadership of Karen Lewis has deservedly received much of the credit, the teachers union is just the current tip of the spear in a long and potentially transformative movement.

“I think we have a synergy going on here that is unrivaled in any other city,” says the Rev. C.J. Hawking, “but it could be replicated.” Hawking is originally from the far South Side neighborhood of Mount Greenwood, “where all the firefighters and cops live.” Twenty-nine years ago, she became a United Methodist pastor. Twenty years ago, during a historic strike in the downstate town of Decatur, she began devoting her ministry to labor issues. In 2007, she became executive director of Arise Chicago, a group founded in 1991 by local religious leaders who wanted to mass their voices together in favor of workers and immigrant rights. Arise created a thriving workers center in 2002, and in the fall of 2011, the group was at the center of the Week of Action, one of the most extraordinary protests in any US city in recent memory.

Massive amounts of money flow from MLM companies to Republican poiticians and conservative institutions—and massive favors flow in return.
It began on a Monday in October. The Mortgage Bankers Association was in town for its annual meeting. From five separate sites across downtown, the marches began; late in the afternoon, they converged on the Art Institute of Chicago. There, on the rooftop pavilion of a sumptuous, brand-new wing designed by Renzo Piano, the wizards responsible for wrecking the US economy sipped champagne and networked. Or at least they tried to above the din of the peasants singing, chanting and yelling up at them from below. On any other day, the pavilion’s vertical struts look like graceful architectural ornaments, but on this day, they looked like jail bars. Martin Luther King said a long time ago, “There is nothing more powerful to dramatize a social evil than the tramp, tramp of marching feet.” He is right—still. I saw fear written on the bankers’ faces. On our faces, I saw joy.
The next day at the Pritzker family’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, sixteen activists from Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation were arrested for occupying the sky bridge between the hotel’s two wings, as hundreds in the streets below cheered them on. A group called Action Now dumped garbage from a vacant foreclosed home outside a Bank of America branch. The rest of the week was filled with similar actions. It was a triumph.
“I never entered a bank before because of my immigration status,” one participant said. “I felt uneasy, but then we became family.” “I was scared,” said another, “but my courage grew.” A third: “I can’t believe I sat in the street! That was my first time. It was great!” A fourth: “I am going to educate my children about what I did and bring them up to do the same.”
Nineteen months later, I asked Hawking how it all came together. The idea sprang from meetings the previous summer of the convening umbrella organization, which eventually became known as Stand Up! Chicago. Twenty groups were at the table: religious groups, a senior citizens group, immigrant groups, community groups and labor unions—a rare convergence in itself. “It was a little awkward at first,” she says. “We always got along. But we were also competing for all those precious grant dollars.”
It turned out to be easier to work together than anyone thought. After testing out a smaller feeder march in June, the groups met in October for an intensive week of planning using an innovative organizing model: they separated into a dozen or so groups of twenty-five. Each group contained members from different organizations; those members planned their own actions, argued together, socialized together and then, when the pivotal moment came, stuck together on the streets.
“People from Arise Chicago, workers who’d had their wages stolen, unionists from Jobs With Justice, people from the Lakeview Action Coalition…I think this [collaboration] is really unique and pivotal to understanding how we’ve been so successful,” says Hawking. “If I get caught and the light turns red, twenty-four other people are going to make sure that I get across the street.”
Stand Up! Chicago dubbed the groups “flying squads” after the Flint, Michigan, General Motors sit-down strikes of 1936–37. “Each flying squad was completely bonded to each other by the end of that week,” says Hawking. At a debriefing after one protest, an experienced activist testified that he rarely felt so free to voice an opinion, to disagree and still feel that he was heard.
I ask Hawking whether she thinks the Week of Action had a direct effect in inspiring the success of the Chicago Teachers Union the following year. “Absolutely. Absolutely,” she answers, before listing a tumult of actions that followed, one feeding into the next: a takeover of the LaSalle Street Bridge over the Chicago River on November 17; 4,000 teachers in their red CTU shirts filling the Auditorium Theatre for a rally that grew into a 10,000-person march in May 2012; the September CTU school strike itself and, three months after that, a meeting of a Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago at the St. James Cathedral, dedicated to fighting for a $15 hourly wage; Black Friday at Walmart; the spread of the fast-food strikes to Chicago; and the latest marches against Rahm’s school closings.
“Organized labor as we know it seems to be struggling,” Hawking says. “And so what did they do in the 1880s and the 1930s? Well, you start building power in the streets.”

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why we need to build a "vanguard" party

Why we need to build a "vanguard" party
by PAUL D'AMATO | June 8, 2001 | Page 13

SOCIALISTS WHO consider themselves Leninists are often criticized for wanting to create a "vanguard party."
To the extent that critics of Leninism are denouncing what is, in fact, a caricature of Lenin--that any vanguard party will be top down and autocratic--there's little to be said. There are, no doubt, self-declared "vanguard" organizations of a few hundred people that lead nothing and repeat worn-out cliches.
But Lenin himself was a leader of a mass party in Russia that led a successful revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were a vanguard in the true sense of the word--not isolated cranks.
Lenin's insistence on the need for a revolutionary party is based on the idea that the working class can't be liberated by anyone standing over or outside its ranks.
That's why Lenin opposed individual terrorism, for example--since it created a passive majority waiting on a small minority to take action for them.
He also rejected parliamentary socialism for viewing socialism as something accomplished by politicians on behalf of the working class.
In short, for Lenin--as for Karl Marx before him--the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.
But there are obstacles to working-class self-emancipation. Otherwise, capitalism would have been done away with long ago.
The employers can depend on the state to use force to keep people in line when necessary. But often, force isn't necessary--because the majority of people more or less accept society as it is. Simple inertia is built into the structure of society--because people can't imagine things being any other way.
Plus, the competitive nature of the capitalist system can pit workers against each other. And there's what Marx called "the ruling ideas of society"--pushed by the corporate-run media and schools to try to convince us that we live in the best of all possible worlds.
Given this, workers have different degrees of consciousness about the possibility of change at any given moment. Some accept the profit system as the best system, while others reject it outright. Some reject racism in the name of solidarity among all workers, while others blame foreigners for their problems. This is why workers don't change their ideas overnight.
Capitalism forces workers to fight--whether they're gas workers in Chicago or autoworkers in Brazil. In the process of struggle, ideas of solidarity, equality and opposition to oppression come to the fore.
But workers don't become aware of their position and power in society at the same time. Some move faster than others and are ready to take the lead.
So, in any struggle, there will always be some kind of leadership. The question is what kind?
Without a clear alternative to the belief of most workers that they have to rely on others to change things for them, potentially revolutionary movements can be sidetracked by moderate leaders who want to keep the fight within the boundaries of existing society.
At the heart of Lenin's concept of the "vanguard" party is the simple idea that working-class militants and other activists who have come to the conclusion that the whole system must be dismantled must come together into a single organization in order to centralize and coordinate their efforts against the system.
In his famous 1969 pamphlet Listen, Marxist! anarchist Murray Bookchin attacks Leninism, or a caricature of it, but then concludes: "[We] do not deny the need for coordination between groups, for discipline, for meticulous planning and for unity in action. But [we] believe that [these] must be achieved voluntarily, by means of self-discipline nourished by conviction and understanding, not by coercion and a mindless unquestioning obedience to orders from above."
Revolutionaries, Bookchin argues, must be organized to "present the most advanced demands" and "formulate the immediate tasks that should be performed to advance the revolutionary process," providing "the boldest elements in action and in the decision-making organs of the revolution."
Ironically, this sounds like a description of Lenin's Bolshevik Party in 1917!

Monday, July 15, 2013

The limits of anti-racism

The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #121, September 2009. Copyright 2009, Left Business Observer.
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The limits of anti-racism by Adolph Reed Jr.
Antiracism is a favorite concept on the American left these days. Of course, all good sorts want to be against racism, but what does the word mean exactly?
The contemporary discourse of “antiracism” is focused much more on taxonomy than politics. It emphasizes the name by which we should call some strains of inequality—whether they should be broadly recognized as evidence of “racism”— over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them. And, no, neither “overcoming racism” nor “rejecting whiteness” qualifies as such a step any more than does waiting for the “revolution” or urging God’s heavenly intervention. If organizing a rally against racism seems at present to be a more substantive political act than attending a prayer vigil for world peace, that’s only because contemporary antiracist activists understand themselves to be employing the same tactics and pursuing the same ends as their predecessors in the period of high insurgency in the struggle against racial segregation.
This view, however, is mistaken. The postwar activism that reached its crescendo in the South as the “civil rights movement” wasn’t a movement against a generic “racism;” it was specifically and explicitly directed toward full citizenship rights for black Americans and against the system of racial segregation that defined a specific regime of explicitly racial subordination in the South. The 1940s March on Washington Movement was also directed against specific targets, like employment discrimination in defense production. Black Power era and post-Black Power era struggles similarly focused on combating specific inequalities and pursuing specific goals like the effective exercise of voting rights and specific programs of redistribution.
Clarity lost
Whether or not one considers those goals correct or appropriate, they were clear and strategic in a way that “antiracism” simply is not. Sure, those earlier struggles relied on a discourse of racial justice, but their targets were concrete and strategic. It is only in a period of political demobilization that the historical specificities of those struggles have become smoothed out of sight in a romantic idealism that homogenizes them into timeless abstractions like “the black liberation movement”—an entity that, like Brigadoon, sporadically appears and returns impelled by its own logic.
Ironically, as the basis for a politics, antiracism seems to reflect, several generations downstream, the victory of the postwar psychologists in depoliticizing the critique of racial injustice by shifting its focus from the social structures that generate and reproduce racial inequality to an ultimately individual, and ahistorical, domain of “prejudice” or “intolerance.” (No doubt this shift was partly aided by political imperatives associated with the Cold War and domestic anticommunism.) Beryl Satter’s recent book on the racialized political economy of “contract buying” in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, is a good illustration of how these processes worked; Robert Self’s book on Oakland since the 1930s, American Babylon, is another. Both make abundantly clear the role of the real estate industry in creating and recreating housing segregation and ghettoization.
Tasty bunny
All too often, “racism” is the subject of sentences that imply intentional activity or is characterized as an autonomous “force.” In this kind of formulation, “racism,” a conceptual abstraction, is imagined as a material entity. Abstractions can be useful, but they shouldn’t be given independent life.
I can appreciate such formulations as transient political rhetoric; hyperbolic claims made in order to draw attention and galvanize opinion against some particular injustice. But as the basis for social interpretation, and particularly interpretation directed toward strategic political action, they are useless. Their principal function is to feel good and tastily righteous in the mouths of those who propound them. People do things that reproduce patterns of racialized inequality, sometimes with self-consciously bigoted motives, sometimes not. Properly speaking, however, “racism” itself doesn’t do anything more than the Easter Bunny does.
Yes, racism exists, as a conceptual condensation of practices and ideas that reproduce, or seek to reproduce, hierarchy along lines defined by race. Apostles of antiracism  frequently can’t hear this sort of statement, because in their exceedingly simplistic version of the nexus of race and injustice there can be only the Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it. There can be only Todd Gitlin (the sociologist and former SDS leader who has become, both fairly and as caricature, the symbol of a “class-first” line) and their own heroic, truth-telling selves, and whoever is not the latter must be the former. Thus the logic of straining to assign guilt by association substitutes for argument.
My position is—and I can’t count the number of times I’ve said this bluntly, yet to no avail, in response to those in blissful thrall of the comforting Manicheanism—that of course racism persists, in all the disparate, often unrelated kinds of social relations and “attitudes” that are characteristically lumped together under that rubric, but from the standpoint of trying to figure out how to combat even what most of us would agree is racial inequality and injustice, that acknowledgement and $2.25 will get me a ride on the subway. It doesn’t lend itself to any particular action except more taxonomic argument about what counts as racism.
Do what now?
And here’s a practical catch-22. In the logic of antiracism, exposure of the racial element of an instance of wrongdoing will lead to recognition of injustice, which in turn will lead to remedial action—though not much attention seems ever given to how this part is supposed to work. I suspect this is because the exposure part, which feels so righteously yet undemandingly good, is the real focus. But this exposure convinces only those who are already disposed to recognize.
Those who aren’t so disposed have multiple layers of obfuscating ideology, mainly forms of victim-blaming, through which to deny that a given disparity stems from racism or for that matter is even unjust. The Simi Valley jury’s reaction to the Rodney King tape, which saw King as perp and the cops as victims, is a classic illustration. So is “underclass” discourse. Victimization by subprime mortgage scams can be, and frequently is, dismissed as the fault of irresponsible poor folks aspiring beyond their means. And there is no shortage of black people in the public eye—Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey are two prime examples, as is Barack Obama—who embrace and recycle those narratives of poor black Americans’ wayward behavior and self-destructive habits.

And how does a simple narrative of “racism” account for the fact that so many black institutions, including churches and some racial advocacy organizations, and many, many black individuals actively promoted those risky mortgages as making the “American Dream of home ownership” possible for “us”? Sure, there are analogies available—black slave traders, slave snitches, “Uncle Toms” and various race traitors—but those analogies are moral judgments, not explanations. And to mention them only opens up another second-order debate about racial authenticity—about who “really” represents the black community. Even Clarence Thomas sees himself as a proud black man representing the race’s best interests.
My point is that it’s more effective politically to challenge the inequality and injustice directly and bypass the debate over whether it should be called “racism.”
I do recognize that, partly because of the terms on which the civil rights movement’s victories have been achieved, there is a strong practical imperative for stressing the racially invidious aspects of injustices: they have legal remedies. Race is one of the legal classes protected by anti-discrimination law; poverty, for instance, is not. But this makes identifying “racism” a technical requirement for pursuing certain grievances, not the basis of an overall political strategy for pursuit of racial justice, or, as I believe is a clearer left formulation, racial equality as an essential component of a program of social justice.
I’ve been struck by the level of visceral and vitriolic anti-Marxism I’ve seen from this strain of defenders of antiracism as a politics. It’s not clear to me what drives it because it takes the form of snide dismissals than direct arguments. Moreover, the dismissals typically include empty acknowledgment that “of course we should oppose capitalism,” whatever that might mean. In any event, the tenor of this anti-Marxism is reminiscent of those right-wing discourses, many of which masqueraded as liberal, in which only invoking the word “Marxism” was sufficient to dismiss an opposing argument or position.
This anti-Marxism has some curious effects. Leading professional antiracist Tim Wise came to the defense of Obama’s purged green jobs czar Van Jones by dismissing Jones’s “brief stint with a pseudo-Maoist group,” and pointing instead to “his more recent break with such groups and philosophies, in favor of a commitment to eco-friendly, sustainable capitalism.” In fact, Jones was a core member of a revolutionary organization, STORM, that took itself very seriously, almost comically so.
And are we to applaud his break with radical politics in favor of a style of capitalism that few actual capitalists embrace? This is the substance of Wise’s defense.
This sort of thing only deepens my suspicions about antiracism’s status within the comfort zone of neoliberalism’s discourses of “reform.” More to the point, I suspect as well that this vitriol toward radicalism is rooted partly in the conviction that a left politics based on class analysis and one focused on racial injustice are Manichean alternatives.
This is also a notion of fairly recent provenance, in part as well another artifact of the terms on which the civil rights victories were consolidated, including the emergence of a fully incorporated black political class in the 1970s and its subsequent evolution. By contrast, examining, for example, the contributions to historian and civil rights activist Rayford Logan’s 1944 volume What the Negro Wants, one sees quite a different picture. Nearly all the contributors—including nominal conservatives—to this collection of analyses from a broad cross section of black scholars and activists asserted in very concrete terms that the struggle for racial justice and the general struggle for social and industrial democracy were more than inseparable, that the victory of the former largely depended on the success of the latter. This was, at the time, barely even a matter for debate: rather, it was the frame of reference for any black mass politics and protest activity.
As I suggest above, various pressures of the postwar period—including carrots of success and sticks of intimidation and witch-hunting, as well as the articulation of class tensions within the Civil Rights movement itself—drove an evolution away from this perspective and toward reformulation of the movement’s goals along lines more consonant with postwar, post-New Deal, Cold War liberalism. Thus what the political scientist Preston Smith calls “racial democracy” came gradually to replace social democracy as a political goal—the redress of grievances that could be construed as specifically racial took precedence over the redistribution of wealth, and an individualized psychology replaced notions of reworking the material sphere. This dynamic intensified with the combination of popular demobilization in black politics and emergence of the post-segregation black political class in the 1970s and 1980s.
We live under a regime now that is capable simultaneously of including black people and Latinos, even celebrating that inclusion as a fulfillment of democracy, while excluding poor people without a whimper of opposition. Of course, those most visible in the excluded class are disproportionately black and Latino, and that fact gives the lie to the celebration. Or does it really? From the standpoint of a neoliberal ideal of equality, in which classification by race, gender, sexual orientation or any other recognized ascriptive status (that is, status based on what one allegedly is rather than what one does) does not impose explicit, intrinsic or necessary limitations on one’s participation and aspirations in the society, this celebration of inclusion of blacks, Latinos and others is warranted.
We’ll be back!
But this notion of democracy is inadequate, since it doesn’t begin to address the deep and deepening patterns of inequality and injustice embedded in the ostensibly “neutral” dynamics of American capitalism. What A. Philip Randolph and others—even anticommunists like Roy Wilkins—understood in the 1940s is that what racism meant was that, so long as such dynamics persisted without challenge, black people and other similarly stigmatized populations would be clustered on the bad side of the distribution of costs and benefits. To extrapolate anachronistically to the present, they would have understood that the struggle against racial health disparities, for example, has no real chance of success apart from a struggle to eliminate for-profit health care.
These seem really transparent points to me, but maybe that’s just me. I remain curious why the “debate” over antiracism as a politics takes such indirect and evasive forms—like the analogizing and guilt by association, moralistic bombast in lieu of concrete argument—and why it persists in establishing, even often while denying the move, the terms of debate as race vs. class. I’m increasingly convinced that a likely reason is that the race line is itself a class line, one that is entirely consistent with the neoliberal redefinition of equality and democracy. It reflects the social position of those positioned to benefit from the view that the market is a just, effective, or even acceptable system for rewarding talent and virtue and punishing their opposites and that, therefore, removal of “artificial” impediments to its functioning like race and gender will make it even more efficient and just.
From this perspective even the “left” antiracist line that we must fight both economic inequality and racial inequality, which seems always in practice to give priority to “fighting racism” (often theorized as a necessary precondition for doing anything else), looks suspiciously like only another version of the evasive “we’ll come back for you” (after we do all the business-friendly stuff) politics that the Democrats have so successfully employed to avoid addressing economic injustice.
Adolph Reed Jr. is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Lee Sustar: Toward a renewal of the labor movement

This article is the second of a two-part series.

Toward a renewal of the labor movement
US labor after the Chicago teachers' strike
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IN PART One of this article, published in ISR 88, LEE SUSTAR looked at the restructuring of the US economy and its impact on the working class and organized labor. This article looks at the significance of the Chicago Teachers Union strike for a labor movement that has continued to lose members and political clout even as the economy recovers.

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The CTU strike and its importance for the labor movement
IN THE midst of a gloomy scene for labor came the biggest and boldest example of social unionism in decades—the 2012 strike by some 27,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Launched a few days after a raucous Labor Day rally that put thousands of teachers and supporters into the streets, the strike began with more than 20,000 CTU members swarming downtown Chicago, immobilizing traffic and leaving Mayor Rahm Emanuel sputtering. Daily mass rallies, including ones in predominately African-American working-class neighborhoods, highlighted the popularity of the strike, which was confirmed in opinion polls that found that sixty-six percent of students’ parents backed the teachers. It was almost certainly the most popular big-city teachers’ strike in US history. Working-class Chicago not only identified with the teachers’ demands for fair pay and the defense public education, but also saw the teachers as fighting for the dignity and respect of working people generally.
The CTU strike was covered extensively in the mainstream media as well as in left-wing publications such as the ISR and Socialist Worker. Those accounts are essential reading for union activists today. The focus here, however, is on the lessons of the struggle for union activists across the labor movement:
  • Building a viable reform caucus takes time and teaches some hard political lessons. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was founded by teachers who had been through the experience of an earlier reform leadership that was turned out of office after one term for having negotiated a concessionary contract. The activists who formed CORE had concluded that the previous reform president, Deborah Lynch, had focused on winning office, neglected building a base in the schools, and was out of touch with the membership when it negotiated the contract. When the contract was voted down, the union threatened a strike—but had made no preparations for one. The membership, skeptical of Lynch’s ability to lead a strike, voted to accept a somewhat improved contract but then turned her out of office months later. It took two disastrous, scandal-ridden terms of the old guard before CORE won union offices.
  • Winning union office brings enormous pressures to compromise—but rank-and-file pressure can be a counterweight. In negotiations over state education legislation, CTU President Karen Lewis initially supported the Illinois state law known as SB7 that imposed a requirement that seventy-five percent of union members must vote to authorize a strike. But CORE members on the executive board rejected that decision, as did union delegates. While the legislation passed anyway, the CTU’s rejection of SB7 sent an important message that CORE would not compromise on its principles.
  • A union that pours resources into organizing the rank and file can get results. CTU officers cut their own pay and put money into internal organizing, chapter by chapter. Training for delegates and other CTU members went well beyond the usual network of activists to create an organizational backbone of 1,000–3,000 teachers and paraprofessionals who led discussion about contract demands and made the argument that a strike would be necessary.
  • Preparing for a serious strike takes months. By the time most union leaders call strikes, defeat is in the air as panicked negotiators realize too late that management won’t budge. Where the bosses are prepared with union-busting operations, the unions lurch into action at the last minute. The CORE leadership of the CTU, by contrast, began making the case that a strike would likely be necessary almost as soon as they took office. Thus when the school board and the mayor took aggressive action against the teachers, CTU’s perspective was vindicated and the rank and file was prepared.
  • Social-movement unionism is essential, especially for public sector workers in struggle. CORE’s first activity as an opposition caucus was a campaign against school closures, which take place almost exclusively in African American and Latino neighborhoods. Once in office, CORE put substantial union resources into developing that alliance. At the same time, it campaigned politically around its well-researched document, The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve, which highlighted “educational apartheid” in the city.  By the time the teachers took to the streets, they were seen as popular defenders of social services while the mayor’s popularity had ebbed.
  • Union democracy is indispensable to building a fighting union. By a vote of union delegates, the CTU strike was extended two extra days after a tentative agreement was reached in order for delegates to take the deal to the picket lines for debate. Hours-long meetings on sidewalks around the city examined the contract in detail. By contrast, strikes in the United States are usually suspended days before members get a chance to see even highlights of a tentative agreement. In the CTU’s case, taking the deal to tens of thousands of members enabled the union to end the strike with a sense of unity and victory.
  • Socialist politics make a difference. The role of radicals and socialists of various political traditions in the CTU was important in many aspects of the strike, from organizing picket lines, to framing negotiations, to politically preparing the union from the attacks by labor’s Democratic Party “friends.” Starting from a perspective that the union’s power is in a self-activated rank and file, the left in the CTU succeeded in creating networks of militants that went well beyond the union’s formal organizational machinery.
This is not to claim that large numbers of Chicago teachers have embraced socialism. Rather, the point is that labor militants, including socialists, worked systematically to revive class-struggle unionism that gave voice to the basic demands of teachers for dignity and respect as well as just compensation. At a time when union leaders who cling to labor-management partnership are presiding over one disaster after another, Chicago teachers were prepared to follow a left-wing leadership which argued that a failure to fight meant certain defeat—and that taking a risk was necessary to win.
The politics of labor’s decline
The dramatic success of the CTU strike stands in contrast with the record of most unions since 1995, when the New Voices slate led by John Sweeney took over the AFL–CIO. The promise Sweeney made then was to build up labor’s political muscle in the Democratic Party, step up efforts to organize the unorganized, and revive labor-management partnership on the basis of a more active union membership—the “mobilization” model that he had backed while president of the SEIU.
The full employment economy did give labor some leverage in the early years of the Sweeney administration. Besides the popular and victorious UPS strike of 1997, workers won big strikes at Verizon’s predecessor company and most of a series of local strikes in the auto industry. Organizing efforts slowed the decline in union membership and eventually boosted it by the turn of the century, but not enough to stop the decline in the percentage of workers represented by unions. The recession of 2007-2009 then pushed the unions back into an absolute decline in overall numbers and an even sharper drop in union density, that is, the percentage of workers who are members of unions.
The more hostile the terrain for contract bargaining and organizing, the more unions have looked to politics to rescue them from irrelevance. Sweeney had some political success in his own terms, boosting the percentage of voters from union households to 24 percent in 2004. But by the 2012 election, the figure was down to 18 percent.  It was the focus on politics and its diminishing returns that was a motivating factor in Change to Win’s split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. But by 2012, the SEIU, the dominant force in the breakaway group, itself doubled down on political spending, putting $33.4 million into the elections. While union money was funneled into elections and member participation in such efforts surged, the SEIU’s vaunted organizing machine was stalled: forms the union filed with the US Department of Labor reflected an increase of just 5,000 members and 2,000 agency-fee payers between 2011 and 2012, perhaps one of the smallest gains in the union’s history.
Despite labor’s fulsome support, Democrats are increasingly likely to attack the unions rather than attend to their interests. The most obvious example was the ignominious fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which labor leaders saw as a ticket to fast-track organizing by removing some of the harshest pro-employer provisions of the laws governing union representation elections. Backed by Obama on the campaign trail, EFCA went nowhere in a Democratic-controlled Congress until banished by the Republican comeback in the 2010 elections.
Even if EFCA had passed, it would not have been the magic bullet to reverse labor’s decline, argued the late Jerry Tucker, the former dissident UAW regional director who was the most outstanding labor strategist of his day. “I would take it back to labor’s culture—its actual activity and what it represents to workers,” he said in 2008. “Organized labor doesn’t represent a movement at this point that workers can attach themselves to—where they feel a certain sense of upsurge or upward momentum.”
Many union activists hoped that Richard Trumka would bring the sense of movement back to organized labor when he took over the AFL-CIO from Sweeny in 2009. As president of the United Mineworkers in the 1980s, he’d led a combative strike victory over the Pittston coal group, and was known for his fiery speeches. But under Trumka the AFL-CIO has only continued its retreat from any kind of industrial strategy and moved even further into Democratic Party politics. Despite the EFCA debacle and a range of anti-labor policies pursued by the Obama administration and Democratic governors, Trumka has apparently concluded that being attacked by labor’s supposed allies is better than being annihilated by the Republicans. The idea of a labor-based political alternative seems beyond consideration. Thus, the AFL-CIO Executive Council is pressing state and local affiliates to better integrate themselves into electoral campaigns by hiring “professional campaign managers.” As Chris Townsend, the longtime Washington representative of the independent United Electrical workers put it:
The labor leadership and staff of today increasingly consist of middle class and professional elements who have no vision or experience beyond the conservative, timid, and limited Democratic Party worldview. They fear the intensifying battles with the employers and politicians—to the extent that they even understand the nature of them—and cannot imagine a political action strategy beyond just more money and more votes for Democrats. The unions methodically adopt a sort-of “reverse syndicalism” policy where traditional workplace union functioning is abandoned in favor of a political-campaign style of unionism. This systematically reduces the union to a political campaign vehicle, and as a result liquidates the union ability to extract concessions from the employer.
At the very moment when workplace union structures are needed more than ever, they have been replaced with political campaign machinery which cannot withstand the attacks of the employers. This political-action style of work also redirects the union struggle away from collisions with the employers in the workplace and off into frequently vague or remote political pressure campaigns. An entire generation of union leadership is now being trained to think that the union goal is to pressure politicians and “raise consciousness” via the media, and not to compel employers to deliver tangible changes in the workplace.
Labor, the Left, and the renewal of US labor
Labor’s disarray has, understandably, provoked an urgent discussion among labor intellectuals, one that was featured in a recent issue of the magazine Logos. Veteran labor and racial-justice activist Bill Fletcher makes the case that the revival of the left is essential to the renewal of organized labor. The roots of labor’s decline, he argues, date from the 1940s when “more than anything else organized labor refused to accept the inevitability of class struggle and instead insisted that the elimination of the left wing in labor helped to ensure that a productive relationship could be built with capital.” Labor’s unwillingness to organize the South—and to confront racism in that region—allowed “right to work” laws to stymie union organization to this day, undermining the labor movement as a whole, Fletcher notes. Labor’s renewal will be difficult and will depend on the ability of the movement to follow the example of the Chicago teachers’ strike with an inclusive social-movement unionism that takes up political issues as well, he concludes.
Writing in the same journal, labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky doubts whether such a comeback is even possible. “Given the current alignment of forces domestically and globally, I find it hard to conceive of any tactics or broader strategy through which the labor movement might reestablish its former size, place, and power,” wrote the author of the classic history of the Industrial Workers of the World and co-author of a biography of miners’ leader John L. Lewis.
A regrowth of the labor movement will not emerge from leaders or forces within the movement as currently constituted. Only a shock of the magnitude of the Great Depression of the 1930s or World Wars I and II is likely to stimulate a rebirth of the labor movement. Such a shock, however, might this time be as likely to produce greater repression of labor as to bring a New Deal for workers. Today it is far easier to maintain “pessimism of the intelligence” than “optimism of the will.”
Is Dubofsky’s prognosis correct? Certainly the raw numbers underscore labor’s weakness, with unions about as weak in the private sector as they were in the heyday of the IWW that Dubofsky chronicled. But the character of the labor movement today is very different than it was in the early twentieth century, when the old AFL, run by the arch business unionist Samuel Gompers, was dominated by craft unions that based their power on the exclusion of African Americans, women, immigrants, and unskilled workers. Arne Swabeck, a US delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922, could report that, “We in the United States have a very backward and reactionary workers movement. For many years, the leadership of these unions has remained in the same hands, with hardly any challenge. These leaders have adopted with their whole being a policy of labor collaboration.”
The social composition of the movement, however, has changed radically since then. US unions represent a higher proportion of African Americans than of the population at large. Of the 14.3 million union members in 2012, 6.3 million were white men, 4.9 million were white women, 1 million were African-American men, another 1 million African American women, 1.1 million were Latino men, and 834,000 were Latinas.  Even if we grant that the second-largest union, the SEIU, is increasingly unaccountable to union members with its multistate and industry-wide union “locals” and concessions to business, it nonetheless includes a large percentage of low-wage workers of color among its 1.8 million members. That in turn shapes the politics of the unions with regard to immigration, for example. While the SEIU and other unions are all too ready to cut deals with corporate interests for immigration reform that could create guest worker status and include harsh enforcement, that’s a far cry from the AFL’s nativism of a century ago. This is not Sam Gompers’ labor movement.
Moreover, the unions today, however bureaucratic and ineffective, nevertheless reflect the diversity of the US working class like no other institution. Just as important, they are the result of workers’ organization at the point of production—where wealth is generated in capitalist society. It is from this that unions derive their power, even if it is more potential than actual today. If the Occupy movement showed the possibility of building a mass movement against the wealthiest 1%, it is in the workplace that workers can act collectively to make concrete gains in that struggle. The Chicago teachers strike, the walkouts at Ford, and the battle on the docks in Longview, Washington, are reminders that unions—whether existing ones or new formations—will continue to play the central role in labor’s inherent conflict with capital.
Nevertheless, one aspect of Swabeck’s assessment of US labor in 1922 still rings true: The policy of labor collaboration by union officials. While business unionism has failed to deliver the goods for decades, the US Left has yet to overcome the Cold War anticommunist purges of the unions in the 1950s. The unraveling of business unionism won’t, however, lead to an automatic revival of the Left in the unions. The decline of the Left since the 1970s and the four-decade assault on labor right-wing offensive can make the partnership, pro-Democratic Party politics of the labor leaders can still appear to the majority of workers to be the only viable perspective for unions. After all, the argument goes, wouldn’t the Republicans be worse? The only available choice appears to be between a slow demise under the Democrats or a summary execution by the Republicans.
Further, the absence of a labor party in the United States, unique among the Western advanced countries, leaves the dominant ideology of American individualism largely unhindered within the working class. Labor leaders themselves try to reconcile workers to this outlook rather than challenge it. Certainly unions take more progressive positions on racism, sexism, LGBT rights, and other issues than they did just twenty years ago. Even so, these positions are left in the realm of civil rights rather than being seen as the foundation of a strong, principled, and united labor movement that can take up those issues at the point of production.
The union leaders’ ideology flows from their social role as mediators between labor and capital. As a strata removed from the day-to-day pressures of the workplace and enjoying considerably more pay and perks than those they represent, union officials appeal to capital for “fairness” for the “middle class” rather than speak frankly to workers about the inevitability of class struggle and preparing for bitter conflicts in an era of endless austerity. This class collaboration approach was already disorienting and demobilizing even when labor was far stronger decades ago. In the face of today’s relentless employers’ offensive, such a policy leads from one disaster to another.
Reviving a socialist current in the unions
Since the anticommunist purges of the unions in the 1950s, socialists have fought to reestablish themselves as a significant current in the labor movement. In the mid-1960s, Stan Weir, a widely experienced labor activist who was a member of the Independent Socialist Clubs, a predecessor organization of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), wrote an article called USA: The Labor Revolt which discussed the early stages of the rank-and-file rebellion that would peak a few years later.
The roots of the rebellion, Weir argued, was, on the one hand, the retreat of the union from the shop floor and abandonment of the right to strike during the life of contracts, on the other, the pressure of constant a push for productivity and a rising cost of living that had begun to squeeze workers despite the overall rise in living standards. The locus of the rebellion, Weir argued, would be what he called the informal work groups at the point of production. It was there that workers would rediscover their power against the employers and push union leaders into action:
In thousands of industrial establishments across the nation, workers have developed informal underground unions. The basic units of organization are groups composed of several workers, each of whose members work in the same plant area and are thus able to communicate with one another and form a social entity. Led by natural on-the-job leaders, they conduct daily guerilla skirmishes with their employers and often against their union officials as well. . ..
For the first time in over three decades, the United States faces a period in which the struggles of the unionized section of the population will have a direct and visible effect on the future of the entire population.
Weir was correct: the years 1965 to 1974 saw the biggest strike wave since the 1940s. In 1969 the Independent Socialists, by then known as the International Socialists (IS), moved their center from Berkeley to Detroit to try and link up with the rank-and-file movement in the auto industry led by African American workers in the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement.
Kim Moody developed Weir’s views into a wider perspective for socialists in 1969, titled “The American Working Class in Transition,” an essay that will appear in a forthcoming collection of his essays from Haymarket Books. Moody noted that  inflation driven by the Vietnam War, higher taxes, and speedup on the shop floor resulted in
a total attack on the living standards of the working class [that] is national in scope and increasingly political in nature. Unlike the problems of the 1950s which are still operative, those that have emerged in the second half of the 1960s affect all sections of the working-class—even if in varying degrees. Furthermore, the rooting of the current instability in the permanent arms economy tends to expose the interpenetration of the state and the corporations, and to destroy the myth of government as an independent force.
Moody stressed that African American workers were at the center of the rank and file rebellion, owing both to the impact of the civil rights and Black power movements, as well as Black workers’ disproportionate representation in basic industry: “In general this growing movement is both class and race conscious. It is part of the general rank-and-file revolt against deteriorating working conditions and income, as well as union bureaucratism. At the same time, the growing number of Black caucuses and organizations are struggling against the special oppression of Black workers.”
Dan La Botz summarized the IS perspective:
The [union] officials’ failure to respond to the employers’ challenge would create the need for an alternative. Radicals would therefore have an opening to organize a class-struggle tendency within the labor movement by organizing rank-and-file caucuses within the different unions. The caucuses would lead workplace struggles over grievances, contract fights, and other collective actions, which were seen as changing workers’ consciousness—of their relationship to the employers, as well as the state—and to developing their sense of power and self-confidence. Through such struggles, workers would become open not only to more militant action and the fight for democracy in their unions, but also to socialist ideas. These caucuses, as they become stronger, would challenge the bureaucracy, pushing it forward or pushing it aside.
The IS based its trade union work on the experience of the Trade Union Education League (TUEL), an initiative of the Communist Party (CP) during its revolutionary years in the 1920s. Through the TUEL, the CP built an alliance of militant local union leaders and rank-and-file activists to take up the struggle against the employers’ anti-union “open shop” drive. The emphasis was the building of rank-and-file organization that could carry the struggle forward whether or not the union leaders were willing to fight. While the CP was not opposed to seeking and holding union office, capturing such a position was not an end in itself, but a means to increase the level of rank-and-file activity—and CP members in official positions were expected to be disciplined to the party. (This approach was jettisoned in the 1930s, as the CP adapted itself to the rising bureaucracy of the CIO.)
Following the example of the TUEL, the IS was able to help build or initiate rank-and-file groups in several industries, including auto, Teamsters freight drivers, UPS workers, and the telephone companies at a time when workers could look to a model in Miners for Democracy, a reform group that had won control of their union. At the same time, the IS was able to recruit a number of militant workers to socialist politics. It was a significant achievement and disproved the notion that US workers were closed to radical politics.
The employers’ offensive that began in the mid-1970s defeated that rebellion. The layer of rank-and-file militants who had led the struggle were under pressure not only from employers but also from their union leaders, who sought to isolate them or get them fired. The restructuring of industry and unemployment was a shock to industrial workers who had never experienced a deep recession. The closure of US Steel’s South Works plant in Chicago in the early 1980s epitomized the problem: The plant had been the home base of Ed Sadlowski, who lead the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign that nearly defeated an entrenched bureaucracy in the 1976 union elections. The IS and other socialists had played an important role in that campaign. Now the base of the movement was being broken up by the restructuring of the steel industry, a process that was also taking place in auto, mining, and freight.
All of this created a crisis of perspective for socialists. The ISO was formed in 1977 following a debate in the IS over where socialists should focus their efforts in these much-more-difficult circumstances. Those who remained in the IS, who would go on to help found the organization Solidarity, concluded that the most relevant contribution that socialists could make in the labor movement was to build rank-and-file and reform union caucuses without the expectation of an audience for socialist politics for some time. Emphasis instead would be placed on broader union-oriented publications like Labor Notes and that magazine’s biannual conferences gathering union militants from across the country.
For its part, the ISO, while in solidarity with the Labor Notes project, also attempted to maintain a socialist presence in the labor movement, however small. This often took the form of solidarity activism around important labor battles, such as the “War Zone” struggles at Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone, and Staley in central Illinois in the mid-1990s and the UPS strike of 1997.
In the past fifteen years, however, the generational transition in the working class, a shift in political attitudes in the post-Cold War labor movement, and diligent work by socialists in the unions, however modest, has opened new possibilities for a revival of a class-struggle current in the unions.
In fact, the role of the Left in the Chicago teachers’ strike has not gone unnoticed. The strike has become a reference point for teacher militants everywhere, and has inspired or reinvigorated teacher-union reform efforts in other cities. The AFT and NEA together are the largest group of unionized workers in the United States, and they are being aggressively targeted by employers. The teachers’ unions will continue to be at the center of class conflict—not only over teacher pay and conditions, but over the defense of public education against privatization. The left’s advances in building social movement unionism in Chicago can become a model for a fightback by other teachers.
To carry out this work in the labor movement generally, socialists need to recover the lessons of previous generations of revolutionaries in the unions, from the TUEL to the Trotskyists in the Teamsters in the 1930s to the IS experience of the 1970s. The challenge is to build the rank-and-file organizations that can sustain what used to be called the class-struggle wing of the labor movement.
Socialists must build in the rank and file at the workplace, because that is where labor’s power ultimately lies. The difficulties in meeting this challenge are, however, considerable. As trade union activist and labor educator Charley Richardson has noted, unions have retreated from organizing on the shop floor in the face of relentless restructuring, the introduction of technology intended to deskill workers, and “partnership” programs designed to convince workers to collaborate with speedups and the constant push for higher productivity. Richardson writes:
The surrender of the “shop floor”—of decisions about work—to management is a disaster for working people and for the future of collective action. Labor’s focus on periodic contract bargaining and ongoing contract enforcement, combined with an acceptance of management’s right to introduce new technologies and restructure work, are out of sync with the reality of ongoing change in the workplace. Conceding today’s decisions about work process and technology sets the stage for defeat in the future.
Renewing labor’s effort at shop-floor organizing requires generalizing the lessons of successful struggles wherever they take place. An important example is the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which quickly organized thousands of members away from the SEIU by breaking with labor-management partnership and using the strike weapon. Another case is the success of the California Nurses Association in winning lower nurse-patient ratios, which succeeded both in reducing stress on nurses and benefiting patients with greater attention.
As socialists sink roots in the labor movement, a number of historical questions facing the movement have once again become very practical. For example, socialists have traditionally drawn a distinction between rank-and-file groups, which are oriented on building workplace power and are organized independently irrespective of who holds union office, and more pragmatic reform groups that tend to see winning office as the means to establish a more democratic and assertive union. Socialists have played a key role in rank-and-file organizations because they help provide a framework for understanding the vacillations of the trade union bureaucracy, which mediates between capital and labor and is under constant pressure from above and below. The political contributions of socialists are key to rank-and-file movements, too, when it comes to challenging union leaders’ reliance on the Democratic Party.
Today, however, the terms “rank-and-file group” and “reform” are often used interchangeably on the labor left. The distinction is made here not out of a desire to be aloof from reform efforts—they should be supported. The goal of socialists, however, is to win coworkers to the perspective of building an independent rank-and-file organization based in class struggle, social-movement unionism, and a commitment to union democracy. This is not a moral question: Given the ferocity of the attack by employers, such organizations are essential if the unions are to remain a force capable of defending workers’ interests.
The difficulty with implementing the rank-and-file strategy today is that the restructuring of industry, a generational transition in the workforce, and the weakness of the Left has made it difficult for militants to even find one another, let alone collaborate to build the struggle. As described earlier, the latest phase of the employers’ offensive is intended to further weaken the informal work groups described by Stan Weir in the 1960s, and to try and snuff out unions once and for all.
That’s why the Wisconsin labor uprising and the Occupy movement were so important. At a time when unions were absorbing heavy losses amid a retreat, the protests showed labor activists that there are tens of thousands of union workers who want to stand and fight, even if union officials squandered that opportunity. Where they felt isolated and unable to resist concessions at their own workplaces, union militants discovered a sense of power and solidarity in a mass mobilization. The task for socialists is to connect that emerging militancy to the struggle at the point of production. The CTU strike provided an example of how this can happen—and it gave a sense of what socialists can contribute to building a fighting union.
The CTU strike also raised the question of whether and when socialists should run for union office. It is one thing to run a campaign to promote basic ideas of militancy and action. It’s quite another to run with the possibility of winning office. There is no space here to examine the issue in detail. The main criteria is whether or not there is a sufficient political base in the rank and file for the leadership to take the struggle forward, and whether the winning slate is sufficiently militant and cohesive to withstand pressure from both the international union and the employers. There are many cases in recent decades of union reform groups winning office on an anti-incumbent, “throw the bums out” basis, only to find themselves isolated and ineffectual once in office. Winning office prematurely can destroy years of work in building rank-and-file organization.
For most socialists, of course, the question is not when to run for union office, but how to get into the labor movement at all. The possibilities for doing so are improving.
The economic recovery, albeit slow, and the mass retirement of baby boomers are creating job openings at unionized workplaces. The manufacturing revival opens the way for hiring in basic industry on a scale unseen in many years. Further, the revival of the labor left since the Wisconsin struggle points to new possibilities for workplace organizing. The obstacles will be formidable: even many unionized workplaces today have a near totalitarian atmosphere, and indiscrete Facebook posts can flag someone as a troublemaker who should be fired at the first opportunity. In addition, building a base at work takes time. It begins with learning the job well and getting to know one’s coworkers—identifying the informal work groups that Stan Weir argued were the key to power in the workplace. It is in this process that class-struggle unionism can take root.
Socialist politics can find an audience through this effort as well. In the 1930s, many thousands of trade-union militants were inspired by the prospect of a socialist alternative to a world wracked by severe economic crisis and war. The same possibilities exist today. Linking workers’ fights today to the struggle for a society based on democratic workers’ control and meeting human needs can appeal to working people who are appalled by endless austerity, resurgent racism, chronic wars, and ecological crisis even as they tackle the most immediate issues around wages, healthcare, and pensions—if they’ve got a union, and organizing one if they don’t.
Socialists will doubtless continue to play a role in efforts to organize the unorganized, as they have historically. It isn’t clear whether the big unions that have backed organizing efforts of low-wage workers are prepared to undertake long-term organizing efforts. In any case, the project has already highlighted the willingness of many retail and food service workers, from Wal-Mart to McDonalds, to use strikes to push for decent wages. Then there are more strategic long-term campaigns, such as Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign initiated by the United Electrical workers to organize warehouses that supply Wal-Mart in the Joliet, Illinois, area outside Chicago. An inspiring three-week warehouse strike there in the wake of the CTU strike forced management to stop disciplining workers who complain about poor working conditions and to pay workers for their strike days. The importance of this effort should be underlined: Chicago is the center of the nation’s freight transportation network, and an organizing breakthrough in the warehouses could open the way for labor to reenter the supply chain that’s critical to both the manufacturing and retail sectors. (The Teamsters and Change to Win have undertaken a parallel effort to organize Southern California port truckers.)
Other examples could be cited. The point here is that despite the defeats inflicted on labor, there are possibilities to begin rebuilding basic union organization and, at the same time, revive the socialist current in organized labor. Even if Melvyn Dubofsky is correct that labor won’t fully revive without some future “shock,” the prospects of future success amid such tumult depend on the preparatory work undertaken today. That is the lesson of the 1930s, when the upturn in struggle came only after years of bitter setbacks in strikes in which communists and socialists played a key role.
Further, organized labor’s comeback will depend on its connections with wider working class struggles, from resistance to racial profiling by police to opposition to home foreclosures and a defense of women’s rights. The rise of public-sector unionism in the 1960s, inspired in large part by the civil rights movement, is another crucial reference point.
The historic weakness of US labor—a focus on “bread and butter” issues to the exclusion of social issues—must be overcome if the unions are to be relevant to a multiracial working class whose view is shaped by crisis, austerity and Occupy. Labor’s more progressive positions on such issues must be turned into practical support for those struggles. That in turn, opens the way for wider popular support for unions in struggle, as the popularity of the Chicago teachers strike shows.
The labor movement in 2013 faces a stark choice: continued accommodation to employers and gradual decline into irrelevance or a turn to struggle in which victory is far from assured and the possibility of a major defeat is considerable. In many circumstances, a serious struggle can mean betting the survival of the union, whether by calling an illegal strike in the public sector or by physically challenging scabs during a strike.
The example of the ILWU struggle in Longview, Washington, is a case in point. Failure to take on the employer would have meant a devastating blow to the union’s pension system. But calling a coast-wide solidarity strike would have exposed the unions to hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. In the end, the company backed down because local union members—many of whom had been arrested for blocking trains—made it clear that they were willing to stop the scab cargo by any means necessary. Yet the battle is far from over, as grain employers use the agreement in Longview to try and drive down pay and conditions in other ports. And the grain contract, in turn, is a pilot for the shipping bosses’ demands in the upcoming Pacific Coast longshore contract. The struggle continues.
Similarly, the Chicago Teachers Union had to risk failure in overcoming the limitations on their ability to strike and the possibility that Mayor Emanuel would succeed in getting a court injunction. But by preparing the ground for the strike for more than a year—not only among union members, but also with labor and community allies—the CTU was able to politically isolate the most powerful mayor in America. When Emanuel finally did seek an injunction, the judge said no. That victory, critical though it was, did not shield the CTU or the city’s schoolchildren from further attacks on public schools. A few months after the strike, Emanuel announced the closure of 54 schools in mostly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. The CTU, allied with community groups, has mounted resistance, but on much more difficult terrain for the union.
Not every labor battle will assume such high stakes, of course. But the long-term character of the economic crisis and the consolidation of the low-wage economy mean the intensification of class conflict. This will take many forms: defending union activists from wrongful discipline or termination; patiently organizing for months or years to prepare for a contract campaign and a possible strike; forming union organizing committees at nonunion employers and more. It is, in short, what Kim Moody, in an essay published in 2000, calls the rank-and-file strategy. The strategy, he writes, “starts with the experience, struggles, and consciousness of workers as they are today, but offers a bridge to a deeper class consciousness and socialist politics.”
Moody concludes:
People are compelled into struggle by real conditions and these are mostly shaped by capital and its endless attempt to regain or improve profitability. These efforts to increase exploitation impact in all areas of working life including the different positions of white and Black, men and women in the workforce, and the union. We build these rank and file groups, acts of resistance, and movements on their own terms, but offer an analysis of the roots of the problem and a bigger vision of how to address them when appropriate. We call this social-movement unionism: a unionism that is democratic, acts like a movement and not just an institution, and reaches out to other working class and oppressed people to build a mass movement for change. . .
Explicitly socialist education and political work must be done in connection with such work in the world of the working class. It must be done in a nonsectarian manner in which socialists from different groups work together where they agree, along with union and community activists who haven’t yet drawn socialist conclusions.
With business unionism leading organized labor into further decline, working class militants inside and outside of the unions are looking for an alternative vision and strategy to take the movement forward. In the harsh new, post-recession US economy, class-struggle, social-movement unionism—and socialist politics—will become relevant to a much wider labor movement audience than it has been in decades.